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NSF grant brings Sandia scientists back to museum-based research

A new National Science Foundation grant will fund digitization of museum mammal collections, which is integral to research in the fields of medicine, physiology, ecology, evolution and biomechanics, among others. The grant brings together scientists and educators from four universities and Sandia National Laboratories.

Sandia scientists previously worked with the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science to recreate the sound a dinosaur made 75 million years ago, using digital paleontology modeling techniques that are similar to the advanced imaging-based modeling the labs use for manufacturing design and testing.

The NSF grant is funding digitization of collections from the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, the University of New Mexico's Museum of Southwestern Biology, and other museums via loans. The three-year $180,000 grant is titled “Digitization PEN: Functional Quantitative Characters for Ecology and Evolution” (FuncQEE). This award is part of the Open Vertebrate Thematic Collection Network as a Partner to an Existing Network (PEN).

The project will generate computed tomography (CT) scans as a basis for 3D modeling of structural diversity for some 1,700 specimens of rodents. These data will be made publicly available on the MorphoSource website to the life science community, educators and science-interested public.

“Like a library, natural history collections hold the knowledge of our planet's biodiversity, and they are an empowering resource to scientists in that they offer both a geographical and temporal record of species,” said Cody Thompson of the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology.

The resulting 3D modeling will allow researchers to examine and quantify the characters found in this radiation of vast diversity throughout the rodent tree of life. Many species of rodents are susceptible to extinction in the face of anthropogenic climate and habitat changes, according to Noe de la Sancha of Chicago State University.

“CT data provides an excellent opportunity to leverage museum collections in a way that was never envisioned 100 years ago,” Thompson said. “Specifically, as it relates to the FuncQEE grant, we will open the doors of the most diverse group of mammals in the world, making important collections available to anyone wishing to study or learn more about rodents.”

The digitizations will help researchers better understand how animals adapt to their environments, which the researchers believe is embedded in their anatomical shape.

“The physical shapes of today’s living organisms are a result of millions and even billions of years of countless evolutionary and ecological filters,” de la Sancha said. “For the vast majority of species, especially in tropical regions, we don’t know much at all about where or how they live, eat or find mates. This project will allow us an initial glimpse into more pieces of this huge puzzle that evolutionary biologists and ecologists have been trying to build. There is a great deal of information we can capture in the small bones and body parts of rodents that we had not been able to access before CT scanning. And this opens up a whole new world of knowledge.”

Read more: https://lsa.umich.edu/ummz/news-events/all-news/search-news/out-of-museu...

Learn about Sandia's earlier experience with digital paleontology: https://www.sandia.gov/media/dinosaur.htm

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